It's suddenly struck me as odd that after some years of writing about food, I haven't addressed digestion. For an Italian that demonstrates remarkable restraint. Whereas in Ireland digestion and bowel movements in general are conversations we have with doctors, in Italy these are daily topics of discourse with friends and family.
It's suddenly struck me as odd that after some years of writing about food, I haven't addressed digestion. For an Italian that demonstrates remarkable restraint. Whereas in Ireland digestion and bowel movements in general are conversations we have with doctors, in Italy these are daily topics of discourse with friends and family. Italians talk with affection and knowledge about their liver and spleen. I suspect most people in this country would be hard-pressed to locate either. Ask an Italian how he feels this morning and the chances are he'll tell you - in detail.
For a nation of hypochondriacs a preoccupation with the digestion produces some tangible effects. Italy has more pharmacies per capita than any other European country and they are stuffed, not only with all the usual pharmaceuticals, but with aids to digestion. Tablets to take before you go out to eat too much, capsules to help you digest when you have eaten too much, even pills to stop you eating too much. Bars can provide you with an aperitif to stimulate your appetite, or a digestivo to help cope with that same appetite's results. Never forget, this is the country that brought you Fernet Branca.
Since digestion is so much discussed and so well catered for, it's tempting to believe all that you hear about it. I mean, if they spend so much time thinking about it, maybe they actually know something about it. For instance they believe that once past the age of thirty we can no longer digest with ease everything we throw into our stomachs; raw sweet peppers are a good example. This is where the digestivo, the post prandial liqueur, comes into its own. A good digestivo after an enormous meal will have you ready to start all over again.
The best digestive you can have is a Nocino, which is based on walnuts. I've never seen it on sale in Ireland, but Fernet Branca is the next best thing - providing you can get the taste of it past your lips. The Germans have their Underberg and Jaegermeister which are similar, and the Dutch have their Petrus Boonekampe and Unicum. What they all have in common is their bitterness. You have to remember that these liqueurs are not drunk for pleasure, they are drunk as a penance after you've had your pleasure. The strange thing is that bitters work just as well at the start of a meal. The same bitterness that settles the bloated belly stimulates appetite in the belly that is yet to be fed.
But suppose for a moment that you intend to have a moderate meal; two or three courses only, no second helpings - and say, for the sake of argument, that you've arrived at this moment with a healthy appetite that is in no need of stimulation. Now we can concern ourselves only with what is pleasurable rather than with what the appetite or digestion demands. Pre-dinner drinks ought to be grape-based if you intend to drink wine with the meal. To the unadventurous this means a dry sherry or a glass of Champagne, but there are other options to consider. The once fashionable vermouth or a Campari soda, both of which contain the unmistakeable bitterness of quinine, are perhaps worthy of being brought back into fashion. Kir, which is white wine with a dash of Cassis, makes a pleasing summer aperitif as does a dry Madeira. Remember Dubonnet? Maybe forgotten, but still good with a splash of soda. And while we're on the subject of nostalgia whatever happened to the Hock and Seltzer? A white wine spritzer is almost the same but somehow lacks that touch of thirties first-class panache - you can almost hear Noel Coward asking for one.
Dry or bitter marks the start of the meal, but sweet marks the end. A vintage port is always good, but it's hardly imaginative. Maybe it's time to revive the sweet Madeiras and thick, pungent oloroso sherries for the post-prandial slot. A Marsala, or a Vin Santo from Italy or maybe a Vin de Constance - Naploeon's favourite - from Constantia in South Africa. Once the drink of Kings and Emperors, Tokai from Hungary is beginning to make a small comeback. And when it comes to liqueurs spare me from another Sambuca with three rabbit droppings floating on the top while a thin blue flame removes all the alcohol and heats the rim of the glass to a temperature that's perfect for burning your lips. Whoever thought that up as an example of sophistication should be flambeed along with their creation.
Aged spirits are also fine after a meal; Cognac is probably the first to come to mind, but what of a vintage Armagnac? An elderly Calvados is a real treat as is a sweet, dark rum. There's a joy in variety and only experimentation will lead you to your drink of choice for each particular occasion that either your palate or your digestion demands.